When winning awards, a journalist is supposed to say that he or she isn’t in the profession to win awards, and that quality work is its own reward.
Who in the name of Joseph Pulitzer am I kidding? Of course I’m happy that The Platteville Journal received seven awards in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest last weekend. Professional recognition of your work is always nice. (For that matter, spending a day with your professional colleagues is enjoyable as well, particularly at a convention that recognized the career and life of the first person who hired you to write sports stories back in 1985.)
Earning awards is not a recent development here. In the past decade, your favorite weekly newspaper has won 29 WNA awards, in editorial, design, advertising and circulation. Seven of those are first-place awards.
The award that surprises me the most is the Most Improved Newspaper award. The first MIN I was part of was at the Tri-County Press in Cuba City in 1992. In large part because I couldn’t figure out how the previous publisher had designed the paper, I essentially started over, including converting it from broadsheet (that is, the size of your favorite weekly newspaper) to tabloid (think our Retrospect 2012 section), putting various parts of the paper in what I thought was their proper places. (Today’s Journal is part 1985–88 Monona Community Herald, part 1988–91 Grant County Herald Independent, part 1991–92 Beaver Dam Daily Citizen, and part 1992–94 Tri-County Press, with ideas borrowed from various other places. I can improve things better than I can create things.)
The Tri-County Press won that year’s Most Improved Newspaper award in spite of the fact that we had to send a large number of newspapers out to readers a second time because they claimed they hadn’t gotten that week’s newspaper. It wasn’t that they didn’t get the paper; they didn’t recognize the paper.
Most Improved Newspaper awards are group efforts. I wrote when I started here in May that my rule number one was to not screw up the past work of my colleagues and predecessor. In the past few years, I’ve grown to realize that change is not always progress, or that while change is inevitable, positive change is not. So my goal in tweaking a few things in The Journal was to improve The Journal, not just make it different, to make The Journal a better value for our readers and our advertisers.
One reason why journalists shouldn’t react to awards like, say, the first-time recipient of an Academy Award is that award competitions do not perfectly recognize quality work. Our competition category includes the state’s largest weekly newspapers. Sports editor Jason Nihles’ career includes two first-place awards. I was also surprised our ongoing coverage of the Veterans Honor Roll, including a special section and our stories July 4 and 11 (all brought to you by our advertisers and Ann Rupp and Carol Tyson of our advertising staff), didn’t get any WNA notice. In a general sense, you’re only as good as your most recent work anyway. (And the standing rule is that if you ever put out a perfect newspaper, that must be your last.)
I’m quite pleased with the two awards this column received, for “Parking problems” June 27 and “Behind closed doors” June 20. A fellow ink-stained wretch commented Friday that if I could win an award for a column on a subject as seemingly banal as parking, it must have been quite a column. Nice compliment notwithstanding, downtown parking wasn’t a banal subject at all, of course, because the ability of customers to get from their vehicles to a store affects the livelihoods of those store owners. (That was something the Common Council occasionally appeared to fail to grasp, which is why I wrote what I wrote.)
As for the Open Records/Freedom of Information award: Freedom of information is a nonpartisan, nonideological, nonnegotiable concept. (That is why I’m especially pleased to see Rep. Howard Marklein (R–Spring Green) get WNA recognition.) The fastest way to get on a journalist’s your-head-will-roll list is to violate and/or ignore the state Open Meetings and Open Records laws. The reason is not just because, say, a majority of Grant County supervisors flouted the Open Meetings and Open Records laws in the same meeting to the annoyance of the news media. It’s because flouting the Open Meetings and Open Records laws is an insult to taxpayers who vote them into and out of office.
Back to that lead paragraph: That is how journalists should deal with awards. (For one thing, work has a way of reminding you that you’re not as good as you think you are.) A front-page award for a news day like last Aug. 25 — when the Wisconsin National Guard 229th Engineer Company’s sendoff for Afghanistan took place at the same time as the Chicago’s Best fire a few days after the Grant County Board tried to replace its board chair — should be the result of your work, not the motivation for your work.
One sign of a true professional is how you deal with the mundane stuff of your job, or the things that seem mundane to you. What seems mundane to you, though, is not mundane to, for instance, parents of students who do great things in school, or family members of volunteer firefighters who run off to help others whenever their pagers go off, or fans of high school sports teams. Other than getting paid on a regular basis, the motivation to do this job is not about the awards; it’s about the opportunity to meet interesting people who are doing interesting things. The motivation is also the unique opportunity to take what might seem to be a dull, overly long government meeting and be able to answer the question posted at the top of my computer screen: “What does this story mean to the reader?”
Professional recognition of your work is nice; reader and advertiser recognition of your work is more important.
By the way: The last issue for letters on the April 2 election will be the March 20 Platteville Journal, deadline March 15.